Despite all the turmoil in the Jewish world, war with Hamas, intensification of anti-Israel feeling in Europe, racism in Missouri, ISIS, Iran, destabilization in so many places in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine, the High Holiday season is the time for the Jewish community to return to itself, to God, to family and community, to Torah and the central life of the spirit.
This does not happen by itself. Our effort is necessary.
The month of Elul begins this coming Wednesday evening. It is the “get ready” month before the High Holidays, and the more we do in preparation in advance of the holidays, the more we will personally benefit. We need that focus as individual Jews now more than ever.
Ala David Letterman, I offer ten suggestions in descending order of importance to think about and do starting Wednesday evening, if not before in the spirit of t'shuvah (return) and tikun ha-nefesh (restoration of our lives).
#10 – Break your daily routine. Identify one bad habit you wish to break. Focus on the good qualities of others and not their bad qualities. Begin to let go of your anger, resentment and hurt. Clean up your language. If you wouldn’t say certain things in front of a child or your mother, then don’t say it at all, ever.
#9 – Take your shoes off. A USA Today study reported years ago that those who habitually kick off their shoes under the dining table, desk or pew tend to live three years longer than the average American. Your feet are like the soul. Feet bound for too long begin to stink, and cloistered souls prevent divine light from shining forth.
#8 - Meditate - The American Institute on Stress reports that 75-90% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints. Meditation is a means to become more aware and conscious. It can be done at any time, when listening to music, looking at fine art, reading a good book or poetry, exercising, or sitting still. Meditation trains us to listen to what is happening within and around us, and consequently to be more present with our loved ones.
#7 – Exercise every day - Walk, swim, ride a bicycle, and keep your body toned. Whenever possible, walk the stairs. Park at the far end of a parking lot. The number of calories we burn this way will result in the loss of pounds over the course of a year, lower our heart rates, reduce our blood pressure, create a healthier physique, and enable us to feel a greater sense of well-being. At the same time, reduce the number of calories we take in, eliminate sugar and salt, and eat well (see #6 for occasional relief!).
#6 – Do one “wild” thing each day, such as:
• Have an ice cream
• Eat chocolate
• Buy a loved one a gift for no good reason at unexpected times
• Laugh whenever possible
• Stretch everywhere
• Sing in the shower
• Say hello to a perfect stranger
• Smile at a attractive woman or good-looking man (as long as you are alone and not with your spouse or partner), and for God’s sake, smile back if you’re smiled at
• Be kind for no reason at all
• Let the guy cut in front of you in traffic
• Pet a dog and look into its eyes – there is more sweetness and love there than you are ever likely to see anywhere else
#5 – Learn to say “No” more often when you are overtaxed and exhausted. And say “Yes” to spending time doing those things that feed your soul, inspire you, infuse you with strength, and draw you closer to the people you love and care most about. Read great literature. Find great teachers. Do mitzvot that accentuate kindness. Give tzedakah every time poor people ask it of you, and don’t question their motives or worthiness. Visit the sick. Call the lonely. Touch, hug and kiss an elderly person who might not have been touched in a very long while.
#4 – Strengthen your friendships - express gratitude to your dear ones more freely. Tell them why they are precious to you.
#3 – Come to worship services more often. Join with others as a community in praise and prayer. Studies indicate that those who worship regularly in community are less lonely and actually live longer.
#2 – Light candles on Shabbat even if you are alone. Buy or bake challah and fill your cup with good wine (or juice) to the very top – and then drink it all! Acknowledge God’s presence everywhere. Feel humility before the Creator. Know that all creation is interconnected within the great Oneness of God.
#1 – Learn Torah. Take advantage of adult learning opportunities. Find one verse or more in the Hebrew Bible that speaks to you personally, and let it become your "mantra." It may be “Vay’hi or – Let there be light!” "V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – Love your fellow as yourself,” “V’ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha – Love Adonai your God,” "Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue," "Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid – I have set God always opposite me." “Sh’ma Yisrael.... – Listen O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone!” Commit the verse to memory. Make it your own. Say it to yourself frequently and become its words.
These are my 10 suggestions for this Elul. I wish you well in fulfilling one or more of them. May the 30 days from Wednesday to Rosh Hashanah be time well spent. May these days create a pathway filled with sweetness, wisdom, light, and love.